DNA Breakthrough Paves the Way to Artificial Life

Thursday, 07 December 2017 - 12:05PM
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Medical Tech
Thursday, 07 December 2017 - 12:05PM
DNA Breakthrough Paves the Way to Artificial Life
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Image credit: Pixabay
The first thing out of any genetic engineer's mouth when describing an ambitious new discovery should be "Don't worry, this won't be a Jurassic Park situation."

And that's what we have here: scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have created a semi-synthetic lifeform by changing its DNA (which is composed of molecules marked as A, C, G, T) to include two new components, an X and Y.

From there, the organism was able to use its new components to create new proteins. 

"This is the first time ever a cell has translated a protein using something other than G, C, A, or T," said chemical biologist Floyd Romesberg. "It's the first change to life ever made."

But what if the new lifeform found its way out of the laboratory and into the ecosystem?

"They can't escape...There's no Jurassic Park scenario," Romesberg told Futurism.

All right, as long as we're clear on that.

Jurassic Park scenarios aside, this is an incredible discovery for science.

The ability to program organisms that can produce new proteins has a host of potential uses, especially in medicine.

One potential use is creating organisms that can manufacture proteins that are simultaneously beneficial to the human body and more effective than current treatments, which are sometimes foiled by the natural operations of the body. But there's an even more exciting application that Romesburg has in mind: 

Opening quote
"Our long term interest is not getting bacteria and other cells to make proteins for us, but rather to see if we can get the cells to use [the proteins] themselves to gain new functions or attributes. For example, could we give bacteria proteins that allow them to break down certain hydrocarbons that we could then use to clean up oil spills?"
Closing quote


The way Romesburg describes it, the next generation of semi-synthetic bacteria could perform a similar function to stem cells by becoming flexible toolboxes for almost any problem. Though this concept is still relatively new, Romesburg is also considering how it might be applied to AI:

Opening quote
"What we have now is an SSO [sequence-specific oligonucleotide] that stores and retrieves increased information. What one does with the increased information is the question. If one can develop a genetic AI, then I guess that the SSO could be used house it. The increased information and types of possible proteins available could be useful."
Closing quote


We're sure bringing synthetic organisms and powerful artificial intelligence together would have absolutely zero inherent dangers. Like, for example, a type of machine-learning bacteria that could escape a lab.
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DNA Breakthrough Paves the Way to Artificial Life
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